"You’ve changed." It’s a phrase that often comes with undertones of frustration and judgment. There's an implicit mourning of the person you once were and, often, a suggestion that the new version of yourself is essentially worse. It's something I've said to myself quite a lot recently.
The pandemic has accelerated change for many of us, often brought on through reasons or things outside our control: loss, work insecurity, illness, grief. And that translated into our relationships, too. Just under one in 10 people considered breaking up with their partner or starting a new relationship, according to a July 2021 report conducted by the think tank Global Future. "In many ways, the pandemic has created the perfect psychological conditions to reconsider our lives," the report reads, describing the pandemic as a "sudden shock" that jolted us out of our routines.
We're navigating a period of extended pressure to continually evolve, question our values, have a lockdown glow-up, do something 'big,' all of which breeds an undercurrent of continual uncertainty. It's difficult enough to maintain a sense of our own identity at the moment — without trying to maintain the identity of a relationship, too.
I got engaged in early 2019 and, like many, had countless wedding plans changed by the pandemic. We even gave up on the idea altogether before finally going ahead and getting something booked for August 2022. Today, with my purse in my lap and about to pay a deposit for a wedding band, I am a totally different person from the one bending down on one knee in 2019. I have a new job and have transformed my prior unhealthy relationship with work. I even look like a different person — I stopped dyeing my hair, grew it out, gained weight, and therefore have a whole new wardrobe. He's different, too. He stopped drinking (which formed the fabric of both of our social lives pre-pandemic) and has decided on a whole new career in a new industry. The way we relate to each other has subtly shifted, too. We're more insular, quieter, less ambitious, dependent.
At this point, we’ve heard and reheard love stories of pandemic proposals, and also many tales of heartbreak. How the pandemic impacted couples varied drastically, based on both internal and external stressors the couples faced, according to a paper published last year in the journal American Psychologist. Researchers found that COVID-19-related pressures could increase hostility and withdrawal, which could undermine couples' overall relationship quality. This may, in turn, create tensions that weren't there when the pandemic began.
This is enough to give anyone cold feet, especially those of us hanging out in the not-quite-married phase. What happens if a long engagement, mixed with personal changes to yourself and your partner triggered by the global crisis, has you wanting to pull a season one Rachel Green?
A long engagement "can be anxiety-inducing" at the best of times, says Rachel Vanderbilt, host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She mentions Pam and Roy from The Office (US), whose long engagement leads to dissatisfaction and, ultimately, a breakup. She adds: "There is not some standard which says you can only be engaged for so many years, but you can enhance your likelihood of relationship success by setting a wedding date and sticking to it." Obviously, this has been impossible of late.
But it's not just TV — more engagements than you'd think get called off before the wedding. The longer you're engaged, the more time there is for this to happen — which is perhaps for the best. Arguably, it is better that the relationship fails before you go to the trouble, expense, and rigmarole of marriage. Allison Raskin, 33, has been open online about her distrust of long engagements after a bad experience with her own. "Having my fiancé abruptly walk out on me six months into our engagement completely changed my view of engagements," she says, before quipping: "I am willing to get engaged again, but that person will have to marry me the next day."
According to licensed family and marriage counselor Amie Harwick, questioning your relationship during an engagement is to be expected, and encouraged. "If you didn't question your engagement, that could actually be more of an issue," she told Refinery29 in 2017. "It's important to say to yourself, 'Is this something I want? Have we talked about this enough? Is it consistent with both of our individual goals?'"
My concern is that a long engagement could extend and protract the anxiety around these questions to the point where you go over and over and over them, unproductively, start to question things unnecessarily and find fault that isn't there. "Long engagements are a symptom of the pandemic," relationship therapist Charisse Cooke tells Refinery29. "This has caused upset and disappointment for couples, and also significant financial stress, which has added to the difficulty." She adds: "If there are no time restrictions, long engagements can be a special time. A time when couples feel secure within their partnership so can enjoy each other and have no insecurities about the future."
Sounds lovely. How does one go about achieving this seemingly elusive secure engagement? Cooke recommends being curious about any change developing in your partner, even if you're feeling overwhelmed about your own sense of personal evolution. "We are going to change throughout our lives — and so will our partners," she says. "While change can feel frightening, it is also something that can be embraced. Maintaining openness to what our partners do and what we feel drawn to do can keep things interesting and allow our love for each other to be expressed in different ways."
We may have had our fill of change as of late, but Cooke often sees couples disconnect due to a lack of change. "When couples begin to disconnect it’s often due to things being very comfortable, but predictable," she says. "Complacency and lethargy can set in within the relationship. Reconnecting doesn’t have to be a major change but rather a return to some of the effort and playfulness that is generally evident at the start of a relationship."
Pre-pandemic, I was afraid to embrace personal evolution because comments like "you've changed" made me feel like I was supposed to have it perfect to begin with. But actually, staying the same — especially when the whole world is flipped upside down — is often the trickier thing to achieve. What I’ve realized is that when you commit to loving someone forever by marrying them, you’re not committing to loving the person you're standing with at the altar, or even the person they were when you met, but the person they will end up being, and all the versions of them that grow and fade in between.